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Educational psychologist values mountain roots

Lawrence Pierce
Music graces the life of Jim Mullins, lead psychologist for Kanawha County Schools. When he isn't investigating ways to identify and remedy neurological problems that hinder learning in county schoolchildren, he's probably playing his guitar, fiddle or banjo, a reflection of his rural West Virginia upbringing. He plays mostly Celtic and traditional Appalachian music. He built the banjo from a kit.
Lawrence Pierce
"Celtic music has got ...
Lawrence Pierce
... to be in my blood. ...
Lawrence Pierce
... It resonates in my soul."
Courtesy photo
Entertaining with frequent playing partner Jenny Allinder (left) and Shari Lupardus during a holiday open house at Blue Star Primitives in Spencer, Jim Mullins attracted the attention of a young fan, Lupardus' nephew. Lupardus owned the store at the time.
Courtesy photo
The musical trio playing for a dance at Huntington Middle School included Jim Mullins on fiddle, Doug Stalnaker on banjo and Mike Webb on guitar. They featured music from the Civil War era to match dances performed by the students.
Courtesy photo
Flooring made of southern long leaf heart pine enhances the home built by Jim Mullins and his wife in Putnam County. Fiddle player John Longwell, owner of Green Creek Woodworks, told them of a friend in Colorado who uses beams from old factories to build floors in high dollar homes. "They were going to burn the wood because it had spike holes in it," Mullins said. "It came from the Planters Peanut Warehouse in Hershey, Pa."
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- He grew up "a lifetime ago" in a rural Appalachian culture that valued the inherent mountain skills of self-sufficiency. He learned how to live, almost totally, off the land.Part of that culture was traditional mountain music. He grew up with it. He plays banjo, guitar and fiddle. He believes the music is in his blood, a genetic thing. Unlike the rest of his family, Jim Mullins went off to college, and, thanks to a couple of dedicated mentors, he earned a doctorate in educational psychology. At 64, he still works at a job he loves -- lead psychologist for Kanawha County Schools.He's soft-spoken and gentle. His eyes light up when he talks about the technological advances available now in his field. But nothing moves him more than his music. Always and ever, he's a proud and grateful mountain man at heart. "I grew up on a farm between Fairmont and Grafton. My childhood was in the '50s and early '60s, so it was a different world."We raised everything, cattle, hogs, chickens. We cut hay and plowed with horses. We didn't bale the hay; we stacked it by hand. Any meat we had, we raised on the farm or got through hunting. Things we bought from the store would be salt and coffee."I am incredibly thankful for that experience. I am privileged that my father came from a generation just one removed from people who were born during the Civil War."In my father's generation, if it needed done, they just did it. I can remember many times when cows were calving, they would have some kind of difficulty and my father would be right there."I have a visualization of him having his arm in a cow up to the elbow because the calf was backwards and they were both going to die, and he got that calf turned around. I was about 8 or 9 and I've never forgotten that."Our farm was quite rocky. One of my jobs every summer was clearing rocks out of fields. Being ever resourceful, when we tore down the old farmhouse and built a new one, those rocks were used on the outside of the house."Our property was very snaky. Copperheads were everywhere. Cows got bitten. Dogs got bitten. One cow got bit on the nose and her nose got as big as a basketball. There was a purple liniment my father would buy and he slathered that all over her nose and a few days later it was fine. I thought she was going to die. "I grew up in a culture that loved music. It was always around. I had uncles who played traditional music on the fiddle and the banjo. I would give anything to go back and spend an hour playing with those folks."Nobody could read music. They sang a lot of early country music songs, Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family. It was pretty much constant. We had radio but not television. Music was the entertainment. It was an archaic type of existence.
"My dad grew up in the Richwood, Greenbrier, Nicholas County area. He was born in a cabin in western Greenbrier County. His dad made his mother a loom, and they were caretakers on a farm that a Lewisburg doctor owned. They would shear sheep, and they grew flax, and she would make clothing. The doctor would buy the kids a pair of shoes for Christmas, all the shoes they had all year."Dad worked in the timber industry. Before we built a new farmhouse, in the winter, it would snow through the walls. When I would go upstairs to go to bed, there would be an inch or two of snow on the stairs."It was a wonderful life. We didn't have anything but we didn't want anything. The lifestyle was, if you needed something, you made it. Dad could make anything. Steel. Wood. I learned a lot from him. I didn't realize how much I knew until we built a house about six years ago. I did all the woodwork myself."I went to high school in Grafton. Nobody in my family had gone to college. The men had never finished high school. I worked for about eight years before I decided I wanted to go to college.
"I worked primarily for a company that built power lines in Indiana and Michigan and Ohio, a job that was 300 feet in the air on a tower. It was an amazing thing, but that was a lifetime ago."I didn't do well the first time. When I went back to school, there were people who became mentors. They would see something in you and push you, and I needed pushed. It didn't work the first time because I didn't have any idea what I wanted to do. I didn't need to be in engineering. I don't have a right brain. I'm more of an emotional, creative person.
"So I got into psychology at WVU. A couple of professors in educational psychology became my rudders in life. It took a long time, but they just would not let go. My adviser, Dr. Anne Nardi, was a driving force in my professional life."I had a professor on my dissertation committee, Richard Walls, nationally known for his research and writing on children with intellectual disabilities. When it came time to do the analysis of data for my dissertation, he scheduled a time for me to be in Morgantown. I was working and had been out of college about six years. I would go to his office on Monday morning at 7, and he would work with me until 11:30 that night. I spent the night at his house. He fed me. That went on all week long, doing this analysis. He didn't do anything else. What is that worth? You can't put a value on that."I got my doctorate in educational psychology, which is about people, how people live and love and learn, and that made sense to me, getting into a field where you can help people understand why they are having problems and do something about that."I started working in Elkins in the fall of '83 at the county office in Elkins. I worked everywhere from Pickens to Junior to Coalton. The first day at work, I met my wife. She's a Charleston girl, so we eventually gravitated this way."Now I'm lead psychologist for Kanawha County Schools. I'm responsible for guiding the way we deliver services and keeping up-to-date with trends and current ideas about learning and how people have difficulty with that and what we should do about it."Things are happening. I'm as excited now as I was 30 years ago, because of technology. Our current thrust is doing evaluations based on cognitive neural psychology. It associates specific activities a child might do in learning with certain neuro-functions in the brain. We can do that because of MRIs."We can take a picture of a brain as a kid reads and see exactly what is happening and where. In kids who have severe reading problems, the part of the brain that is supposed to be functioning when you read is not working."We've known for a long time that it's neurological in origin and now we have visual physical evidence that proves it is a neural dysfunction. Our task now is to find ways to identify that and find research-driven ways to remediate it. And we are working on that."My music is gravy. You wonder if it's an inherent thing, maybe even genetic. Celtic music has got to be in my blood. It resonates in my soul."Music is a big part of my life. I never took a lesson in my life. Now I give lessons in fiddle, banjo and guitar."Lately I've been playing guitar with a wonderful fiddle player, Jenny Allinder. If you ever get a chance to hear her play, it's so soulful. The way I play guitar, we mesh beautifully. We play weddings, occasional concerts. We've played at Taylor Books and the New Year's thing every year."I do lots of traditional Appalachian music and Celtic. Jenny and I can play pop. It's unbelievable what comes out."I've been married 29 years. I'm so blessed to have Marty. She teaches the exceptional gifted, students who are gifted but have some disability that makes it difficult for them to succeed. We have two children, Matt, 27, doing his last year at Marshall and Michael, 22, who drives trains, a passion of his."I've only within the last few years come to realize what I had on the farm in my early days. It's that background of self-sufficiency, the confidence of being able to do what needs to be done in your environment to get by."I hunt. When I hunt, it is for food. I've probably butchered 150 deer."My wife and I, it had always been our dream to build a house. After a couple of years, we found some land in Putnam County. I contracted for people to frame it. But we pretty much did the rest ourselves, siding, doors, windows, all the woodwork inside."We built it so we could retire there, but I live there now. I don't want to retire. I like what I'm doing. I think we are doing a lot of good, so I figure I will do it a couple more years. I hope they don't kick me out the door, but a lot of young folks are looking for jobs."Reach Sandy Wells at or 304-348-5173.
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